Monday, January 30, 2006

Strategies for Sustainable Curiosity: Part 2

If you missed last week's adventure into the wilds of curiosity, you might want to begin there. But it's certainly not required.

Why Do We Go Into Automatic Pilot?

Linked to the lessons of pyscholinguistics is this: one of the strongest resources people have is their ability to develop habits. Pattern recognition allows us eventually to do anything without thought, over and over, once we've had enough experience.

Just ask the Russian Formalists who felt the purpose of art was to shake us out of our stupor -- otherwise known as conventional wisdom.

Back to Work

Once established, work habits are very difficult to break. Deferred interests get forgotten in the daily the routine of pleasing one's boss. In fact, success according to a superior becomes the highest goal.

To succeed at a job, employees are forced to separate part of him or herself to do the job. This one piece is overdeveloped to satisfy someone else's interests and usually generates little genuine enthusiasm in the person doing the task. In fact, often what employers get instead is a kind of numbness in all the other emotional and intellectual limbs, or worse, they foster resentment.

If exercised only rarely, a strong passion either gets repressed or becomes available in particular contexts.

Western work culture values specialists. We think of identity as singular -- and we are what we do. Someone is EITHER in marketing, in education, or in strategy. However, wouldn't all three benefit from the others?

It's this sort of short-term thinking create that boxes the big bosses complain about.

How good can this be for motivating innovation?

True for the Big Wigs as Well As the Small Fries

It wouldn't be surprising if this phenomenon applied only to entry-level workers who are limited in their training and reach. But even powerful people who love their jobs often hate the prospect of Monday morning on Sunday nights. One executive who happily runs her department feels the pressure to conform to a role, to be right, to leave the rest of herself at home.

And this is a woman who ranks high enough that she can call the shots. I've seen her in meetings, and she is not much different in her reactions or in the subjects she covers than she is in social situations. Yet she still feels the pressure to leave most of herself and interests outside the boardroom and makes a point of reinvigorating her other passions once work is done.

Short-term thinking is indeed necessary sometimes. However, change becomes a big problem for most companies without the long-term support of employees' continuous sense of self, of full range of resources -- across work and life.

On the other hand, if employees can be encouraged to cultivate their genuine interests in order to do their work, they'll be prepared to innovate regardless if their job changes or even if the direction of the company changes.

The Results of Short Term Thinking

As discussed earlier, new employees find pretty quickly which of their interests they can indulge and which must be shelved. Those who don't streamline these interests enough are usually said to be a "bad fit" and move on to find a different but equally narrow role that represses other interests in which they are less invested.

What if you kept the ones who are usually sent away and see what they can add to your culture? For this, ask David Firth about the Corporate Fool.

Effective Thinking is about Making New Connections

Here's the flip-side to the problem with going into automatic pilot in unproductive ways: one of the strongest assets we have as human beings is the same ease at forming habits. How do you break one set of patterns? Create another habit to replace it. And this can be one of the keys to changing work habits and culture.

The more one gets into the habit of remembering what it feels like to be oneselves in a variety of circumstances, the more connections one can make in any particular situation.

In other words, the convergence of what one feels and what one thinks outside work will offer new ways of seeing work situations that would otherwise seem hermetically sealed off from the world by the office walls.

If thinking is associative, and new connections are necessary for innovation, the best thing for a business is a staff encouraged to maintain as many interests as possible. Employees are bound to be more comfortable looking around to see what engages if they are supported in developing a continous sense of self (read: engagement) from life to work and back.

The more comfortable the employee is using her full set of resources, the more likely she is to be able to be creative. This is long-term business thinking.

Throw the Net Wide: Transform A Culture of Training to One of Learning

What if your training program offered a component that demanded new employees sustain several interests outside work and find connections to processes within your company?

What if part of a manager's review focused on the ways in which she accessed the broadest range of resources from her employees? And an employee's review reflected his or her ability to dig deep and find not just the depth of one skill but instead evaluated the breadth of subjects about which he or she is interested or engaged?

What if creativity became the goal of every company if defined as the ability to learn continuously across contexts? In addition to a particular specialty, wouldn't it empower your employees to think on their feet when change ensues?

Personal engagement would make employees more likely to pursue problems with energy and develop interests ordinarily either forgotten or lost. New connections will emerge. From here comes the fodder for innovation.

Wouldn't The Box be at thing of the past?

Long-Term Thinking: It's Worth It

This sort of transformation takes planning and experimentation until each work culture gets it right. Learning is disorganizing, and businesses would need to prepare for it. However, it could work if a creative culture were supported from the top down and with disciplines developed over time.

What if you found criteria to measure success on a quarterly basis, and fine-tune until it works? Creativity must be a habit, a practice, and it won't work as a one-time effort. People learn over time and develop new ways of thinking with continuous support. Thinking continuously across contexts can be the touchstone of every other piece of business if integrated into each process.

Start small and expand. As part of a larger program and set of disciplines, your company will have much less problem navigating change.

And you'll find much more innovation than you ever expected.

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